Company of Heroes was an incredibly popular Real Time Strategy game on home computers for a reason. If you asked developer Relic, it would put that reason down to the game’s blend of pace, tone, attention to detail, tactical depth and its continued contact with its fan community. It also approached World War II combat in a way that has really only been seen previously in first-person shooters.
But that was 2006. This year, Relic is looking to up its game with Company of Heroes 2
. Game director Quinn Duffy was keen to explain, during a hands-off presentation of the sequel, that the studio spent an awful lot of time researching for new stories to tell from the Second World War. Bit of a tall order, that one, but it seems to have done it, with a focus on the ‘forgotten theatre’ of the global conflict - the Eastern Front.
While there have been films, novels and all kinds of historical texts regarding the Western Allied campaign, the huge battle between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany hasn’t been explored to quite the same level. Set in the early 1940s, Company of Heroes 2
chronicles the bloodiest battles of World War II, waged after a Communist-fearing Hitler launched a counter-attack on Stalin’s land one fateful morning, wiping out millions of civilians in the process.
After months of falling back and fighting on its collective back foot, Stalin made the infamous Order 227 to the entirety of his Soviet brothers and sisters. It announcement can be summed up in one inspiring sentence - “Not one more step back!” It ultimately strengthened the Russians’ resolve, led to key victories and forced the Nazi’s into an unexpected, extended campaign that it wasn’t fully equipped for.
That premise is the driving force behind the campaign in Company of Heroes 2
, reflecting the desperate nature of the Soviets as they use the Winter elements to their tactical advantage, whilst still being challenged by the technologically superior Nazi invasion force. From the moment the game’s demo started rolling, it was obvious that this allowed for some interesting advancements in RTS play.
The demo saw a troop of Russian soldiers trying to advance their way through a war-broken village, occupied by the Germans. Snowdrifts and the low visibility of the Winter weather affects the movement of the soldiers - they are seen scampering to the player’s selected waypoint as they try to overcome deep snow and shield their eyes from wind and falling flakes.
That interaction with the weather effects is said to be a key improvement to the game’s proprietary Essence Engine 3, which includes new rendering mechanics and advancements in environmental layers. As a result, a close up of the soldiers will reveal that their animations change when dealing with clear roads, snow tracks or heavy snow banks. I’m told that this will impact gameplay - assumedly in the way the soldiers will be able to attack.
And attack you must - owing to the authenticity of the era, I saw a segment of the game where a number of Russian solders were pinned down by heavily-covered German forces, and chose to retreat. Retreating will get your troops shot in the face by your own commander. “They were warned,” apparently. Bit nasty. But desperate times, etc etc.
Another big addition to the game is what Relic refers to as ‘True Sight’. It’s a twist on the classic ‘Fog of War’ mechanic - instead of revealing a block of the map as you advance, this system works as a dynamic ‘fog blob’ that morphs to reveal enemies and structures whenever you would expect the soldier in question to see them.
Have your men run through some trees, for example, and the True Sight mechanic will only show clearly the parts of the map that can be seen between those trees. In one part of the demo, soldiers ran past a burning tank to reveal an enemy machine gun position that had them pinned down and suppressed. That’s when you use the classic flanking mechanics, retained from the original game, to overcome such troubles.
The computer won’t make it easy for you though. The AI is said to be vastly improved from the last game - enemies will automatically run for spare cover if they feel that they’ve been compromised, and will try to use your own tactics against you. Luckily, the AI of your own troops is just as clever, crouching and reacting to situations without any additional input.
As you would expect, Company of Heroes 2
seems to work on something of a Rock, Paper, Scissors mechanic. Drive a tank around to roll over soldiers, but get a plane involved and those tanks will be knackered in seconds. Relic has also added vehicle abandoning, so that tanks can be captured or re-captured for a little bit of extra drama.
Ultimately, Relic is hardly rewriting the book here. What it is doing is maintaining the core experience from the first Company of Heroes
game, whilst adding realism in the environmental interaction and new tactical plays. Above all else, the studio wants to present this side of World War II in a ‘sensitive’ fashion, focusing on the plights of the soldiers rather than the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of the Soviets and Nazis.
It’s looking like a very interesting campaign, with gameplay elements that are likely to keep the core fanbase extremely happy. We’ll soon have a play with the game properly in the months to come and see if it lives up to the standard Relic has set for itself.